Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The Way Home

Operation Arcana

This story first appeared in the new anthology OPERATION ARCANA, edited by John Joseph Adams. Available now from Baen Books.

The demon, like all the others before it, appeared first in the form of a horizontal plume of rust-red grit and vapor. Almost a kilometer away, it moved low to the ground, camouflaged by the waves of hot, shimmering air that rose from the desert hardpan. Lieutenant Matt Whitebird watched it for many seconds before he was sure it was more than a mirage. Then he announced to his squad, “Incoming. Ten o’clock from my position. Only one this time.”

But even one was deadly.

Sergeant Carson Cabuto, some six meters to Whitebird’s right, huddled against a jut of rock, black as obsidian, a stark contrast to the gray-brown camo of his helmet and combat uniform. “Okay, I see it,” Cabuto said. “That’s fifty-six minutes since the last one. I was starting to get worried.”

“Just starting?”

White teeth flashed in a round face tanned dark by the sun as Cabuto glanced at the lieutenant, his eyes invisible behind black sunglasses. “Now we know the rules, bring it on.”

The squad — what was left of it — had taken refuge atop a low plateau, one of several that punched up through the desert plain. Ten meters high and maybe twenty at its widest point, the plateau’s black rock was cracked and fissured, skirted by sharp-edged fragments that had fallen from the walls. The squad had spread out around it, so they could watch the desert in all directions.

Their combat training had neglected to cover a situation in which they were alone in an unmapped desert with no GPS, no air traffic, no vehicles, no goats, no sheep; where the radios worked, but there was no one to talk to; where the enemy emerged from churning dust wielding glittering, lethal swords — but they were learning.

There was no sun above this desert, and no real sky, just a dust-colored glare so bright it was impossible to squint against it for more than a second or two, but though there was no sun, there was heat. One hundred twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit, according to Whitebird’s weather meter. He sucked in the heat with every breath. Belly-down on the black rock, he soaked it in, an exhausting, brutal heat that seeped past his chest armor and the heavy fabric of his combat uniform, heat that got inside his brain, making him think thoughts that never would have entered his mind if he was still in the world. Thoughts like, If Goodfellow breaks down one more time, I’m going to shoot him and I’m more than halfway sure we’re already dead.

Whitebird knew that in all likelihood he had simply gone mad.

“This one’s coming fast,” Sergeant Cabuto warned.

“Roger that.”

Madness was not an assumption he could work with. It offered no way out. It demanded that he give up the fight, retreat from the battle, wail at a soulless sky, and pray for a rescue that would never come.

Fuck that.

This was real, for whatever value of real might get defined along the way.

He licked at the salt tang of blood seeping from his cracked lips, wondering if the demons smelled it, or just felt the presence of their souls like an invisible lure, undetectable by any human measure.

Whitebird turned his head, projecting his voice across the rock. “Estimated forty-five seconds until the next dust bunny gets here. Foltz, any more showing up on your side?”

“Not so far, sir!” the specialist shouted back. “But if I spot one, is it mine?”

“This isn’t a game, Foltz. Alameri, how about you?”

“Negative, Lieutenant!”

Assurances came back from Fong, Keller, and Cobb that no other demons were in sight.

Last of all, Whitebird turned to Private Goodfellow, down on his belly five meters to the left. The eighteen-year-old was not watching the horizon as he’d been assigned to do. Instead, his worried gaze was fixed on the thing of sand and vapor, his gloved fingers clinging so tightly to his assault rifle Whitebird wondered if he intended to use it as a club. “Goodfellow.”

The private flinched. He turned to Whitebird. Dust coated the dark skin of his cheeks; behind his protective glasses his eyes were red-rimmed. All the warrior accoutrements — combat uniform, helmet, boots, safety glasses, body armor, backpack, assault rifle, grenades — could not make Goodfellow look like anything but what he was: a scared kid, overwhelmed by the unknown and the unexpected.

“Still with us, Private?”

“Yes, sir,” he whispered, not sounding too sure of himself.

“This one is yours.”

His brows knit together in abject worry. “Sir, please no, I — ”

“You’re going.” Whitebird didn’t want to send Goodfellow. He had more worthy soldiers, but Goodfellow was the weak link and Whitebird didn’t want him around. “Stay down,” he instructed. “Don’t move until I tell you and do not use your weapon.”

With Goodfellow, the worst-case scenario was all too likely: At some point the kid would panic, and then his friendly fire would be more dangerous than the demons that hunted them. “When I say go, you jump down that ravine. You’re only going to have seconds to get to the bottom, so move fast. You got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Lieutenant,” Cabuto warned, “it’s here.”

Whitebird looked down in time to see the train of dust boil up to the base of the plateau. He could hear the burr of unknown forces swirling within it . . . or maybe that was just the sound of sand rubbing against sand, and maybe the sparks of electricity flaring and dying within the cloud were caused by friction, too, or maybe they were generated by magic — he didn’t know. He only knew it was a waste of ammo to shoot at the demon while it was in its sand and vapor form. The squad had learned that early. So Whitebird leaned over the edge of the shallow precipice, his M4 carbine aimed at the demon’s churning mass, and waited. Sergeant Cabuto did the same.

Seconds passed, and then the skein of sand drew itself upright, a snake raising its head.

“Here we go,” Cabuto whispered. “Show yourself, dust bunny.”

To Whitebird’s shock, the demon’s sand form shot up the cliff face. It burst over the top between him and Cabuto, showering them in a storm of grit that crackled and pinged against their helmets and eyewear. Whitebird rolled onto his side, his weapon aimed up as the demon congealed from the cloud.

It came dressed in a gray-brown desert combat uniform, with an M4 carbine clutched in its long, black-clawed fingers.

That was new.

• • • •

For eight weeks, ever since his unit had transferred to their combat outpost, Whitebird had been haunted by a sense of disaster lurking just out of sight in some unknowable direction. Every night he’d awakened in a rush of panic, sticky with sweat in the aftermath of some monstrous dream. He had told himself it was the altitude, the unrelenting aridity of the high-desert air that made it hard to breathe, hemmed in as he was by the bare plywood walls of his little bunkroom.

On most nights he had wound up outside under a blazing firmament of stars, the soft purr of the outpost’s generator the only sound in the world — and when the generator cut out, silence enfolded him, silence so deep his brain hallucinated noises and he would imagine he heard a susurration of sand-on-sand, a crackle of electricity, and a haunting, hungry wail that made his hair stand on end — and his heart pound with fear.

He imagined other worlds brushing up against the one he knew.

He never spoke of these imaginings — who would? — and when the generator kicked on again he would go back inside and prepare for the day’s assignment.

That day the squad had been patrolling on foot, chasing down numerous reports of insurgents in the district. At the end of a brutally hot afternoon, they were returning to the shelter of the outpost — a haphazard collection of plywood buildings surrounded by sand-filled barriers and barbwire situated at the crown of a low hill. They were five hundred meters out and Whitebird was looking forward to food and email when a missile came screaming out of the north.

“Get down!” he yelled and dropped to his belly.

He watched the missile hit. It missed the outpost, striking instead the hill beneath it. That hill proved to be made of ancient, weathered, rotten stone. Afterward, Whitebird would conjecture that the slow pressure of a cosmological intrusion had seared and heated and cracked the stone within that hill until it was shot through with dimensional faults and fractures. A blistering weakness, it shattered at the missile’s impact, collapsing into roiling clouds of dust and fire . . . and the demons slipped loose — boiling, vaporous plumes sweeping toward the squad with all the deliberate speed and inherent purpose of charging predators.

More than fear, Whitebird felt an instinctive repulsion. He didn’t know what was going on. He only knew he didn’t want to be touched by it, or caught up in it. Turning to his squad, he screamed at them to run.

Too late.

The land rejected the intrusion. It trembled and heaved and folded in on itself, crushing the demons in the seams of that transition, pinching off their shrieks and wails as day turned to night. Whitebird felt himself falling without ever leaving the ground, as if gravity shifted around him . . . and then the sky ignited into an unbearable glare and he was here, his squad with him, prone in the heat and the red dust of a lifeless plain, without a blade of grass or a fly buzzing anywhere around them.

Cast out.

No longer in the world.

• • • •

They had been delivered to a desert plain as flat as an ancient lakebed. Heat shimmers rising from the clay surface bent and blurred the air, limiting clear sight to just a few tens of meters. So they heard the first demon before they saw it — a murmuring of blowing sand though there was no wind, and then a sparking snap of electricity as a train of dust charged into their midst where it congealed into . . .

. . . a glimmering white sword — that was the first thing Whitebird saw, a curved weapon nearly a meter long looking like the tooth of some monstrous T. rex or a slaughtered dragon. It was held in long-fingered hands, red-brown like the desert. Behind that primitive weapon was a manlike figure — if a man could be seven and a half feet tall with eyes like asymmetrical black fissures slashed into a white-bearded face with red lips around sharp teeth and its tongue a cluster of tentacles glimmering with moisture as it darted in and out, in and out, the creature wearing only a low-slung belt of what looked like human finger bones, with an exaggerated stallion dick dangling flaccid between its legs.

The sword swung, severing Yuen’s neck, sending his helmeted head tumbling from his shoulders. Blood fountained just like in the movies. It showered the squad. Screams erupted as everyone fell back, separating themselves from the collapsing body and the long white sword. Whitebird brought his M4 to his shoulder, at the same time dropping to one knee, a move that let him aim up so his rounds wouldn’t hit his soldiers who were behind the monster.

He put three quick shots into the demon’s chest.

• • • •

No one knew where the demons came from or what they wanted, but it was now clear that they could learn — and adapt. The creature presently looming above Whitebird was no naked warrior with a sword. It was modernized, weaponized, and far more lethal — assuming it knew how to use the carbine that it held. It hooked a finger over the trigger and started experimenting, firing a string of rounds that hit the rock behind Whitebird. Stone and metal fragments pummeled him as he returned fire, shooting it in the face. Cabuto punched holes in it from behind, shots aimed outside the protection of the armored vest it wore, hitting both shoulder joints and rupturing its neck.

Fire erupted from every wound. Roaring, sinuous streamers of yellow-orange flame, the energy of the demon’s existence maybe, bursting into this dimension from some lower world.

The thing arched its back in agony as the fire enveloped it. It shrieked and it shook, but it did not go down.

They never did.

In the twisted landscape of his exhausted mind, Whitebird was more disturbed by the demon’s refusal to collapse than he was by the hellfire, or by the creature’s inexplicable appearance out of blowing grit and vapor.

The reality he once knew had been stolen away. The rules were different now.

“Can you see it?” Cabuto shouted over the demon’s keening. “Is it opening?”

Whitebird vaulted to his feet, backing away from the searing heat. “Not yet!” But it would open. “Goodfellow, get your ass over here!”

“Sir, I — ” He backed a step away. “Let Foltz go first. He really wants to go — ”

It wasn’t a debate. Whitebird had made his decision. He just hoped like Hell —

Ah, fuck that. He needed to cut that phrase right out of his vocabulary. He hoped to God he was sending the kid home and not to Hell.

Holding his M4 in one hand, he grabbed Goodfellow’s arm with the other and marched him up to the fire while the demon’s shrieks faded as if its voice was retreating into the distance.

Cabuto circled around to watch.

The demon’s shape could no longer be seen. The fire that had consumed it became a thin sheet that expanded into a pointed arch seven-and-a-half feet high. As soon as the arch formed, it split in the middle, opening along a vertical seam, the fire drawing back until the shimmering flames framed a passage that had been burned through to the world. Whitebird could see through the passage, to home. He knew it was home because he could see the proper color of the sky. He could see figures in the distance in familiar uniforms; he could see vehicles, and helicopters circling the collapsed ruins of the outpost.

Cabuto called it Death’s Door.

Whitebird longed to pass through it. So did Cabuto. Everyone wanted a chance to go — except Goodfellow. “Now or never,” Whitebird warned him. “You will not be given a second chance.”

He shoved the kid hard, and when that failed to convince him, he brought his weapon to his shoulder and trained the muzzle on Goodfellow’s face. “Go now, or die here.”

For a second, Goodfellow was too shocked to react — but then he stepped through, a moment before the fire burned itself out. When Death’s Door closed, he was on the other side.

• • • •

Whitebird intended to get everyone out, but it was a slow, dangerous game, and it had taken time to learn the basic rules: that a door only opened if they killed a demon, and then only one soldier could pass through.

No one knew why.

No one knew who had made the rules: God or the Devil or an ancient magician or random chance. It didn’t matter. “We know how to get home. That’s all that matters.”

Whitebird knew — they all knew — that the longer any of them stayed in that place, the more likely they were to die there. The demons might kill them or, worse, the demons might stop trying to kill them. If the demons didn’t come hunting them, if there were no demons to kill, there would be no passage back, and whoever was left behind would die of thirst.

So in his mind Whitebird weighed the merits of each of his soldiers. He balanced the potential of their unknowable futures against the immediate needs of the squad, and he developed a list in his head that prioritized their lives.

“Keller!”

“Yes, sir,” she answered from her position on the opposite side of the little plateau. Specialist Trish Keller, who had a year-old daughter and no support from the dad.

“You’re going home next, Keller. Be ready.”

“Lieutenant, who goes after Keller?” Foltz wanted to know.

Foltz was a good, determined soldier, but not a selfless one. He’d been putting himself forward at every opportunity, pushing hard to be the next to go home — but Sergeant Cabuto didn’t approve of his lobbying.

“Knock off the chatter, Foltz! Keep your eyes on the desert. The lieutenant will let you know when it’s your turn.”

Whitebird squinted at the glassy haze of heat shimmers rising above the dust, going over again in his head the evacuation list he’d developed. Foltz was going to be disappointed, because after Keller he planned to send Private Bridget Cobb, who was an only child. Then Private Ben Fong, who would make an excellent non-com if he lived long enough. Only after that would he let Omar Foltz go, and after him, Private Jordana Alameri, who was basically a fuckup and didn’t have much of a future to go home to. Once his soldiers had all made it back, then Sergeant Cabuto would be willing to go.

It was a tentative schedule, subject to revision. Whitebird considered moving Cabuto up the list, ordering him to follow Keller. He didn’t want to have to get by without the sergeant, but Cabuto had a wife and three kids. Or maybe he should send Alameri next. After this tour of Hell’s suburb, she might be ready to walk the strait and narrow.

There was only one position on the list that Whitebird was sure about, and that was his own. He would go last, which meant that for some unknown interval of time, a few seconds or forever, he would be here alone — and what that would be like?

It didn’t bear thinking on.

• • • •

After Yuen died and Whitebird killed the first demon, Death’s Door had opened for the first time. Foltz had been nearby. He’d seen through to the world and had tossed a rock into the passage to test the way — but the rock bounced back.

Specialist Jacobs had a different idea. “Let’s try something from our world.” He moved in close to the searing fire, tossed a cartridge — and it passed through. The squad pressed in around him despite the heat, watching the glittering cartridge shrink with distance and then silently strike the ground on the other side, bouncing and skipping across the familiar gray grit of the desert they used to patrol.

There was a nervous catch in Jacobs’ voice when he announced, “You know what? I’m going home.” Then he stepped through.

Whitebird had been badly startled. He’d grabbed at Jacobs, tried to catch him, to pull him back out of harm’s way, but Jacobs was already on the other side, a distant figure seen in utter clarity as he turned to look back at them. His mouth moved with words Whitebird could not hear as he gestured emphatically for them to follow — but Whitebird could not follow. The passage pushed at his mind and he could not move his limbs in any way that would take him through it.

“Foltz, go!” he ordered, and Foltz was willing.

He pushed past the lieutenant and tried to push on into the passage, but it was closed to him too. When he realized it, he turned on Whitebird in an explosion of frustration. “Goddamnit, Lieutenant! What the fuck is going on? Is this some kind of crazy experiment? Yuen is fucking dead. What the Hell did you get us into?”

Jacobs was still looking back at them from the other side when Death’s Door closed.

• • • •

What did you get us into?

Whitebird had no answer for that or any of the other questions the squad lobbed at him:

What is this place?

Why are we here?

Is this Hell?

“I don’t know!”

They clustered around him, Cobb and Goodfellow weeping, Keller praying quietly, her folded hands pressed to her forehead, the rest clutching their M4s, their gazes flitting from him, to each other, to the heat-blurred horizon — scared, suspicious, angry.

Whitebird forced himself to use a matter-of-fact voice: “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why we’re here, but we are going back. Sergeant Cabuto!”

The sergeant stepped up, stern, determined. “Sir!”

“Set up a perimeter guard.”

“Roger that, sir.”

Foltz still had questions. “I don’t get it, sir. Why the hell did Jacobs get to go back? He did go back, didn’t he? It looked like he went back.”

“He went back,” Whitebird confirmed. He was not going to allow doubt on that — it was all they had to hold on to — but the question that really mattered was, could they do it again? Could they send someone else back?

He put Keller to work inventorying their supplies, and then he helped get Yuen’s head and body wrapped up in an emergency blanket. When that was done, he conferenced with Cabuto. “If it happens again, we need to be ready.”

“Agreed, sir.”

They pulled Private Lono aside, selecting him because he was their strongest man.

Whitebird asked him, “If the chance comes, are you willing to try it? To follow Jacobs?”

“Roger that, sir. I sure as fuck don’t want to die here.”

Whitebird nodded. “I want you to carry Yuen’s body with you when you go. We’ll follow if we can.”

Out on the open plain, Whitebird felt too vulnerable, so he directed the squad to make for the nearest plateau. They would take turns carrying Yuen’s body.

They’d been walking only a few minutes when the second demon came. The soldiers out front started shooting when it was still churning sand. That drove it back, but only briefly. It charged in again, congealing into existence only inches from Fong, who fired his M4 point-blank at its belly and then fled as fire erupted. The passage back to the world opened just like the first time, and Lono escaped with Yuen’s body. But though Keller tried to follow, she could not.

The next demon came just as they reached the rocks and it got LaBerge.

After that, two demons came together. One was killed. Fernandez used its death to return to the world with LaBerge over his shoulder. After he left, Cobb got all weepy, claiming she’d seen LaBerge’s soul seeping through the passage — “Like a glowing light cleaner and brighter than daylight” — which convinced Whitebird that she was full of shit because there was nothing clean and bright about LaBerge’s soul.

But that didn’t mean he’d deserved to die here, halfway to Hell, with his head cut off by a lunatic demon.

• • • •

They spread out once again around the top of the small plateau, waiting for another demon to appear. Five minutes crept past, and then ten before Cabuto spotted a sand plume, far out on the desert and barely discernible above the heat shimmers. It churned up against the wall of another low plateau a kilometer and a half away, and disappeared.

Fong spotted another, but it too failed to come after them.

It had been six hours since the squad dropped out of the world, but there was no sign of nightfall in this place and the heat remained constant. They’d been low on water from the start. Soon it would be gone and then they’d have only a few hours before they succumbed to dehydration. They needed to find more demons before then.

Whitebird turned to catch Cabuto’s eye. “We’re moving out. The dust bunnies didn’t have any trouble finding us on the plain.”

Cabuto turned to look again at the next plateau, a black island rising from the shimmering red-brown flat. “We saw one disappear over there.”

Whitebird nodded. It was as good a direction as any.

• • • •

They made their way down from the rocks and then set off across the hard clay surface. Every footfall sent a puff of fine red dust into the still air. Sweat leaped off their skin, evaporating as soon as it formed. Whitebird sipped at his remaining water, but the relief it brought was wiped out by the next breath of hot, dry air.

They stayed ten meters apart. Whitebird and Foltz marched in front, Cobb, Alameri, and Fong formed a second rank, and Cabuto and Keller held the rear, keeping watch behind them.

They couldn’t see far. Hot air rose in shimmering columns, reflecting distant plateaus while hiding what was really there so that again, like the first time, they heard the demon before they saw it. “Three o’clock!” Whitebird called out, turning toward a faint rustling white noise.

“I can hear another,” Cabuto warned. “Five o’clock.”

“Fucking two dust bunnies?” Alameri grumbled. “Again?”

“Two tickets home,” Whitebird reminded her. “Fall back if they materialize between us — and stay alert for more.”

“I see it!” Foltz shouted. “Three o’clock!”

“Fall back!”

“Incoming from behind!” Cabuto warned.

The two plumes of sand and vapor churned past their outer ranks, converging in the middle where Cobb had been standing. She tried to get away. She plunged right through one of the sand plumes, but the other curled around to cut her off. Both demons transformed. Giant figures, they stood back-to-back, dressed in desert camo and armed with carbines. Cobb was caught between them as gunfire erupted from all sides.

Whitebird dove for the ground. Bullets chewed through the hot air as demon howls broke out, competing with the racket of the weapons. The demons had been hit. Whitebird rolled, coming up on one knee to see the two creatures on fire, their weapons burning and useless in their hands — with Cobb sprawled and bloody on the ground between them.

“Cease fire!” he screamed. “Cease fire!”

The shooting ended, and Whitebird charged toward the two flaming figures. As he did, he saw Foltz move in the corner of his eye. “Foltz! Help me get Cobb!”

“But, sir — ”

“Now!” He crouched beside Cobb. Her jaw was shattered. Blood soaked her right arm and thigh. Grabbing her pack strap, he dragged her away from the fire.

Goddamn. Goddamn.

The demons couldn’t have shot her where she’d been standing.

“Foltz!”

Whitebird looked up to see Keller, Fong, Foltz, and Alameri, all waiting near the flames.

“Keller goes next!” Whitebird ordered. He strode into their midst, grabbed Foltz, shoved him away, shoved Alameri. “And you, Fong, go.”

Foltz and Alameri looked mutinous, so Whitebird kept his finger just above the trigger of his M4 and watched them until Keller and Fong were gone.

Foltz cursed into the quiet that descended. “Goddamn shit. Why the fuck do I have to stay here? Why? We are going to fucking die here.”

From somewhere behind Whitebird, Cabuto spoke. “Lieutenant, Cobb’s not going to make it.”

“I know that.”

“I can’t get a heartbeat. We’ve lost her.” And then, “Holy shit. Lieutenant, you have to see this.”

Whitebird turned.

Cabuto was backing away from Cobb as a black shadow, utterly dark, seeped up from the ground beneath her body. It spread out to surround her, and as it did, Cobb sank into it, her shattered corpse dropping slowly away — into some place worse than this one?

“Don’t let her go.”

“She’s dead, sir.”

What did that mean, here? LaBerge had died here. Yuen had died. This had not happened to them.

Whitebird rushed to Cobb’s side, went to his knees and grabbed for her, but though she was only inches away, he couldn’t touch her. A twist of geometry had placed her out of reach as she lay cradled in darkness, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, but with the mangled flesh and shattered bone and broken teeth of her jaw exposed.

He didn’t exactly see it happen. He couldn’t point to the moment, but the pliant geometry that held her stretched and shifted and she was suddenly away, lying on rocky soil among tufts of grass with a moon rising over sharp peaks, spilling a yellow light.

Whitebird knew the place. “That’s home. That’s right by the outpost.” He looked up at Cabuto. “Go. Follow her. Follow her through.”

Pale dust frosted Cabuto’s dark face. “No, sir. We’ve got two soldiers who need to go ahead of me, sir.”

“Goddamn it,” Whitebird whispered. “I want you to go.”

“Not before them, Lieutenant. No fucking way.”

Whitebird stood up, furious. Cabuto was worth more than Foltz and Alameri together. He had a wife and kids. Arguing, though, would only waste the chance.

“Foltz!”

Foltz was still steps away, cursing his luck, but Whitebird discovered that Private Alameri had come quietly to his side. She looked up at him from behind her dark sunglasses. He nodded. “Go. And don’t waste your fucking life.”

No hesitation. As Foltz came charging up, she stepped into the shadow and then she was standing on the other side, standing beside the body, an infinite distance away but still close enough that he could see her as she turned, looking up at the three of them gazing down at her. Then searing desert light infiltrated the shadow, destroying it, leaving only hardpan covered in red dust.

• • • •

“What the fuck just happened?” Foltz screamed, probing at the ground with the butt of his weapon and then hammering at it. “Why did that happen?”

“Death’s Door,” Cabuto said.

Foltz turned on him. “It didn’t happen when Yuen died! Or LaBerge! What was different this time?”

“Leave it!” Whitebird snapped. He already knew what made this death different. “It just fucking happened. You are going to make it home, Foltz.”

“Yeah? Alive or dead?”

“Alive if you can hold yourself together. What happened to Cobb doesn’t need to happen again. It was an accident.”

Whitebird regretted the words as soon as they were out, because they pointed Foltz to the truth.

He backed a step away, eyeing Whitebird with a guarded expression. “The demons didn’t kill her, did they? We killed her.”

“Friendly fire,” Cabuto affirmed as he turned in a slow circle, eyeing the terrain.

“But it’s not going to happen again,” Whitebird added.

Foltz nodded, though he was thinking hard.

Thinking the same thing Whitebird was thinking: that Death’s Door opened every time they took a life . . . and not just a demon’s life. They knew that now, but it was a poisonous knowledge.

“We’re in this together,” Whitebird emphasized.

Foltz nodded again, though he did not seem convinced.

• • • •

They went on, deciding that it was more likely another demon would notice them if they kept moving. Or maybe more than one would come. There might even be three. Three would be enough to get them all home, and then Whitebird wouldn’t have to stay here alone.

He’d kept his fear locked up for hours, but they were close to the end now and his dread of what that meant was rising up to choke him. Foltz would get to go home next, and then Cabuto. Whitebird would make sure of that. It was his duty. He swore to himself he would make it happen.

Then only he would be left behind, left here, alone.

And if the demons killed him, then what? There was no one to take his body back. What would become of his soul?

He wasn’t sure he believed in a soul, but he worried over it anyway.

A faint susurration reached his ears, barely audible over the crunch of their boots, the creak of their packs. He stopped and turned, scanning the plain — and this time he saw the demons at a distance, reflected in the heat shimmers so that their plumes of dust appeared elevated above the ground. One snaked toward them from two o’clock and another from four o’clock, two came from behind, and a fifth raced in from their left.

“Ah, fuck,” Cabuto swore.

Whitebird said, “Run.

Their packs banged against their backs as they sprinted for the rocks. Cabuto took the lead with Foltz on his heels. Whitebird followed. If they could get behind the fallen boulders with their backs against the black cliff, then they could make a defense, hold the demons at bay, reduce their numbers . . .

But they were already too late.

More than an hour ago they’d watched a plume of sand and vapor wander the plain before disappearing into these rocks. That demon was still there, waiting for them. Dressed in desert camo with an M4 carbine in its black-clawed hands, it crouched behind the shelter of a massive, angular boulder lying like a black prism on the ground. They were fifteen meters away when it started shooting.

The first shots went wild. Then a burst struck Cabuto in his chest armor, knocking him over backward. Foltz caught a round in his hip. It spun him, dropping him ass-first to the ground. Whitebird jumped over him, jumped sideways, pulled a grenade from his vest, and hurled it behind the rock as a bullet chewed past his helmet.

He dove for the ground. The grenade went off.

The explosion blasted a cloud of dust into the air and shook the cliff hard enough that an avalanche of sharp stones dislodged, tumbling down with a roar. The body of the demon ignited on the edge of the debris.

Foltz saw it and heaved himself up in an act of will that somehow got him to his feet. Under the incandescent light of the false sky, the blood that soaked his hip blazed red. He took a step and his leg gave out. He sat down hard again. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it, Whitebird, you got to help me!”

Cabuto, a few meters behind Foltz, had recovered enough to make it to his hands and knees. He rocked back to a kneeling position, his weapon aimed at the oncoming assault. The storm front of demons was a hundred meters out, five plumes that blended into one, bearing down on them with a low whisper of sand on sand, punctuated by the sharp crack of arcing electricity.

“Help me!” Foltz screamed.

Whitebird ran past him, ran past Cabuto, and lobbed another grenade, heaving it as far as he could in the direction of the oncoming cloud. It went off ahead of the churning sand, with no effect that he could see. He looked back over his shoulder.

The burning demon swayed like a balloon afloat on hot air, its feet just brushing the hardpan as flames spread over it in a blazing sheet: the prelude to Death’s Door opening. Foltz was trying to drag himself toward it, but for him, it was too far.

So for the last time, Whitebird mentally updated the order of his evacuation list. “On your feet, Sergeant,” he said, rejoining Cabuto. “This one’s yours. You can make it if you run. Now, move!”

Cabuto didn’t. He scowled past dark sunglasses while keeping his weapon trained on the oncoming cloud. “Take Foltz, sir!”

“Goddamn it, there’s no time! Get on your feet and go!”

Foltz had stopped his slow crawl. He twisted around, his M4 gripped in two hands. Past the blood-smeared lenses of his safety glasses, Whitebird saw fury and a sense of betrayal in his gaze. “Foltz,” he said, trying to reassure, “I’m staying with you.”

But a decision had already crystallized in Foltz’s eyes. A calculation born of logic and desperation: There was still a way for him to go home.

The demon storm was eighty meters out when Foltz raised his weapon, training the muzzle of his M4 on Whitebird, and on Cabuto, who was still kneeling with his back turned.

Whitebird screamed “No!” — but it was already a meaningless protest, an empty aftermath to a decision made and acted upon. Deep in the pragmatic layers of his battle-trained mind, he’d concluded a calculation of his own. His conscience continued to wrestle with the choice even as his own weapon fired in a drawn-out peal of hammering thunder, dumping slugs into the midline of Foltz’s chest armor, stitching a straight line to his throat, through his face, shattering his glasses and his skull. His weapon flew out of his hands, tumbling, caught in a shower of blood.

Cabuto lunged to his feet. He spun around, eyes wide with horror, his mouth a round orifice of shock as he held his M4 tucked against his shoulder, contemplating Whitebird over its sights.

Whitebird shook his head, gesturing with his own gun at a black shadow seeping up through the desert floor, enfolding Foltz’s body. “Go.” Already, the body was subsiding into darkness. “Go, Sergeant. Follow him home.”

“You killed him!” Cabuto screamed. “Why? Just to buy a way out?”

Whitebird answered, saying what Cabuto needed to hear: “He was aiming to kill you. Us. We were his passage out of here. You saw him before. You know what he was thinking. I had no choice.” But that wasn’t the whole truth. “I fucked up and called it wrong. He was never a hero — and I let him think he could be left behind.”

Cabuto looked like he wanted to argue more, but what was left to argue?

“Go now!” Whitebird shouted, knowing that neither of them — no one who had been in that place — would ever really leave.

The sergeant’s gaze shifted to the burning demon, transformed now into an arch of flame framing a transient passage back to the world. “You better get your ass in gear, Lieutenant. You better fucking run!”

Cabuto turned and stumbled into the shadow, dropping out of Whitebird’s sight.

The swirling sand storm was almost on him when Whitebird took off, sprinting for the fire. The demon-driven sand swept past him and then spun around, encircling him to block his way, but he plunged through it, the grains hammering in tiny, painful pricks against his cheeks and pinging against his sunglasses, his helmet, his clothes. Demon figures resolved out of the red-tinged chaos, some armed with white swords and others with guns.

Whitebird started shooting. He emptied his magazine at half-seen shapes until he felt the fire’s searing heat radiant against his face. Only then did he look at it, and within the encircling arch of flame he saw familiar stars spangling the moon-washed night sky of home — a step away or an infinite distance, he didn’t know.

In the dusty air above his head the whistling passage of a demon’s white blade sounded, descending on him.

He dove.

Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy the anthology this story first appeared in, Operation Arcana, edited by John Joseph Adams. It contains sixteen never-before-published tales of military fantasy, and is available now from Baen Books.

Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata grew up in a rented beach house on the north shore of Oahu. She graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in zoology and worked for a time at Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. She has been a writer, a mom, and a programmer of database-driven websites. A Nebula and Locus-award-winning author, her more recent work includes short fiction “Nahiku West,” runner up for the 2013 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the novel The Red: First Light, a near-future military thriller that was a finalist for both the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. She lives with her husband in their long-time Maui home.